Last September, China discovered a large reserve of “combustible ice” on the tundra of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. “Combustible ice” is essentially frozen natural gas – a natural gas hydrate, and is one of the newest energy sources to be discovered. The new reserves found in China reveal a very large supply equal at least 35 billion tonnes of oil, enough to supply China with 90 years worth of energy.
Combustible ice has been found in high altitude frozen plateaus as well as underwater in marine sediments. Natural gas hydrates are essentially just frozen methane and water and can literally be lit on fire bringing a whole new meaning to fire and ice. Researchers still need to get a better understanding of how best to handle the fuel, for it to be commercially exploited. The US DOE is looking into it as well and researchers expect that the hydrate will have to go through a phase change and melt it into methane and water before it can be efficiently combusted. If left to melt on its own as the earth warms though, methane could be released into the atmosphere, and it could cause even more damage than if it were just burned.
One cubic meter of combustible ice contains 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas and is considered to have few impurities, meaning it can burn cleaner with less pollutants. While reserves of combustible ice have been found around the world, China’s discovery is big and estimates say that there is enough energy frozen in the tundra to provide the country with energy for 90 years. Natural gas, which is not a zero emission fuel, can only be considered a “cleaner” energy source compared to oil, but given the alternative of it just being released from melting, it might be wise to continue research on this new energy source.